Gender equality in Azerbaijan still remains a prominent issue both in terms of daily life experiences, economic opportunities, and social life. Women in Azerbaijan are mainly socially conditioned to become caretakers of the family as their first role and having a job that allows them to do that is very important (UNDP, 2007). Attitudes towards the LGBTQI+ are very homophobic, which creates large hurdles both in day to day life of the individuals and their position in society overall.
The cultural sector in Azerbaijan comprises several formal and informal institutions and practices. The main state body responsible for the cultural production and preservation of heritage and traditional forms of art is the Ministry of Culture. The established art galleries in the country include YARAT Art Centre, Museum of Modern Art Azerbaijan, and the only commercial art gallery in Baku for visual arts and sculptures – Gazelli Art House. The arts and cultural production in Azerbaijan are very much centered around the capital city and the regions have very limited access and resources to both consuming and producing art. In recent years, there have been attempts to decentralize culture by the independent hybrid art/cafe places – such as Art Garden in Ganja and Tor in Lankaran. There is also a small, but interesting practice of mobile festivals and art events that try to spread the cultural activity beyond Baku. Sevil Fest is an International Women’s Documentary Film Festival that takes place in Ganja as the main venue, but also in rural regions of Azerbaijan as satellite events.
In Azerbaijan, creative industries generate only about 1% of GDP (British Council, 2018). The salary distribution of the employees in the sector is low with more than 50% of the employed receiving between 250-400 AZN per month (NSS, 2021). However, it’s worth noting that most of the commercial transactions in the cultural sector are happening within the shadow economy and are not captured in the official statistics and GDP. For instance, singers are among the larger income owners from the cultural industry with the main source of their income being commissions from singing at weddings and these are usually informal cash transactions. According to the National Statistics Committee, the art, entertainment, and recreation sector has employed only 1.6% of the population in 2020 and 62% of those employed in the cultural sector are women.
This research was carried out based on the desk research consisting of the analysis of websites and social media accounts of major cultural institutions in Azerbaijan using the gender lens; the google search for the keywords and analysis of cultural news.
Access to Spaces and Resources
One of the key challenges of artists of all genders is access to funding and financial resources. The opportunities for funding artistic production are scarce both from state institutions and independent foundations. 50% of the survey respondents have mentioned that they don’t have access to stable finances and 20% said that they have difficulties in funding their work. Three respondents explicitly said the source of most of their problems is lack of funds, and they can’t find enough space and resources for producing their work. The International organizations, foreign embassies, and cultural institutions such as Goethe Centrum, Institut Francais, and others act as main supporters of the cultural sector in terms of finances and networking opportunities. Usually, there are small-scale cultural activity funds that artists and professionals from the cultural sector can apply for and work on the production of their work. While creating an opportunity in the scarce environment, these funds do not ensure any continuity for the artists. And it’s worth mentioning that many of the younger and emerging artists do not have the skills and capacity for writing specific grant application forms and administering budgets. In most cases, unless intended for wider distribution and deliberately designed for that, the funding from international organizations tends to end up with the same circle of artists and art professionals.
Representation of women in decision-making roles is also limited although in the ministry of culture gender representation in the key positions is better than in many other ministries in Azerbaijan- one of three Deputy Ministers and five department heads are women, including one of the key departments- Department of Arts. However, both now and in the past the position of the minister was held by men.
The space in galleries, opportunities for networking, and for developing artistic production are usually provided to men rather than women. The solo exhibitions are usually held for male artists and they get to have the largest representation in museums and galleries. For example, one of the main and almost the only in terms of scale and available resources contemporary art hubs in Azerbaijan- YARAT has several galleries that host exhibitions. In Yay gallery so far from 2014 only two solo exhibitions of local female artists were hosted, in comparison to five solo exhibitions of the local male artists. Yarat Center also has given space to four local male artists for a solo exhibition, while the only exhibiting female artist was the founder of the gallery. One of the respondents described Yarat’s gender policy as:
“Curator must be a smiley woman, the artist must be a manly man.”
An overview of the exhibitions so far gives an impression that women and LGBTQI+ artist’s works are included when the topic is specifically related to gender. An exhibition that tried to challenge existing gender stereotypes and to address some of the gender-related issues in the country was “Boy’s don’t cry group exhibition” at Artim project space in the Summer of 2017. The exhibition included works of local and international artists. A very interesting and necessary take on the gender aspect was performed by two female artists Chinara Majidova and Leyli Salayeva named “Men only (women be not ashamed)”. This work focused on exposing daily experiences of verbal harassment that women experience on the streets of Baku while walking. They made a survey of different abusive and harassing expressions that women hear in the streets and invited several women for filming a video where they pronounce these sentences (Femiskop, 2017).
Until September 2017, Artim (since 2015) and YAY Gallery (2012-2018) have rarely exhibited works of women in their projects. Only in march 2018 a group exhibition named “Think That Everything That Exists, Does Not Exist” focused on displaying works of female artists. The exhibition included works by the artists Shahnaz Aghayeva, Aysel Amirova, Gunay Aliyeva, Leyli Gafarova, Fakhriyya Mammadova, Aydan Mirzayeva, Chinara Majidova, Parvana Persiani, Shalala Salamzadeh, and Leyli Salayeva. The works were largely inspired and related to notable women of the past and the present from the region’s history and mythology. Yarat’s website describes that “the exhibition aims to rediscover female voices considering the richness of women’s attitudes towards relevant topics of our times and dissolving gender stereotypes” (Yarat, 2018).
When it comes to giving space and platform to female artists the commercial galleries are also not doing the best job. Since 2013 the only commercial art gallery in the country Gazelli Art House has exhibited works of only five female artists and 29 male artists.
In an environment that continuously nurtures and provides opportunities for cis-gender males the issue of gender equality is being addressed by more grassroots organizations. One of those is Salaam Cinema that provides a platform and safe space for both LGBTQI+ and women. One of the co-founders said in an interview that they try to address the issue of equality and inclusiveness both in their staffing and programming. In addition, they also do a very careful curation and hosting of their events. In training and workshops they organize they always try to invite LGBTQI+ and women trainers, because this sets an inspiring example for the attendants and helps them to carry on in challenging circumstances.
Another cultural platform worth mentioning for its inclusion policy and attempts to start conversations about gender equality situations in the country and in the art world is the art criticism platform Chaghdaschilar that has three series of video discussions including 1) exhibition reviews 2) artist friends 3) panel discussions. In each discussion, they have a strong gender policy in terms of guests and proposed discussion topics.
Another online platform that attempts to take a stance on gender issues is VarYox, which is also the only organization identified in the framework of this research that has the Prevention from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Policy outlined officially on their website. As an organization, while they give importance to both inclusion of women and non-binary in the recruitment of their staff, they also have supported female artists in producing an exhibition or launching a public crowdfunding campaign for an educational opportunity. An exhibition of Fidan Abilova’s work took place at Tor coffeeshop’s project space in Lankaran and was one of the rare occasions when works of a female artist from regions were displayed in a solo exhibition.
Outside of Baku Art Garden Ganja is a space that aims to host creative projects, connect people who work in arts, and provide a support network. It was a pioneering project in moving cultural activity away from the country’s capital- Baku. The space has organized painting lessons for children from underprivileged families, exhibitions around social issues, and workshops on cinema, storytelling, etc .Currently, it consists of a cafe, that helps them to support social activities and ateliers for artists and makers space.
Most of the mainstream and popular cultural productions also always support and almost never have contested the gender norms in the country. The artists rarely speak of gender issues or portray them in their works, and mostly when they do it’s done in the framework of understanding that – women are valued members of society and they should be treated with respect. In addition to this, the mainstream culture and media play a very large role in reiterating gender stereotypes and roles. A very bright example is a show organized every March 8 by two male comedians known as Bu Şəhərdə. While the show is framed as a “gift to women” usually the content carries a lot of ridicule and stigmatization of women and overall is misogynistic.
Quite often art professionals speak of women as less creative and capable in the production of cultural work than their male counterparts. On a public TV show, a very well-known Azerbaijani director and screenplay writer Oqtay Mirqasimov said that he doesn’t believe in women directors. He said that he is usually disappointed when he sees female students in the class because he doesn’t believe that they will be able to continue their due to their lack of confidence and also other duties like motherhood and care for the family. These kinds of thoughts resonate largely with the norms and perceptions in the larger society and usually stand in the way of the inclusion of women into the field of cultural production. The artist Leyli Gafarova, said in her interview that one of the main challenges of being a female artist is that you are almost never taken seriously.
An article on Baku Research Institute’s website analyses the depiction of women in Azerbaijani cinematography since the Soviet period and notes that while in the beginning of the XX century with the initiative of the Soviet government women were portrayed as independent and strong individuals this has drastically changed later on. The women were imposed with conservative frameworks of “dignity holders of the family”, depicted as unnecessarily quarrelsome, and were too often portrayed as guilty ones, even if they were the ones who suffered from rape or harassment (Sultanova, 2019). One of the respondents mentioned that when she was trying to make a film about a story of a single mother she was ridiculed and was told to select a more interesting subject. In general, the issues related to women and LGBTQI+ were not picked up in the local film scene so much and are being explored only in recent years by independent filmmakers. For instance, Lala Aliyeva’s “They whisper but sometimes they scream” is a story of a lakeside sanctuary that has long been used by the women residing in the neighboring village to ward off their sorrows by talking with the lake. The narrator conveys stories of different women and those bring forward to the display the issues that women are dealing with in their everyday life (Femiskop, 2020).
Despite the state of the dominant culture, the grassroots organizations, relatively independent art platforms, and on some occasions even the largest contemporary art institution Yarat support and produce works around the subjects of gender equality.